Visakhapatnam: On Saturday, visuals of towering piles of ganja (marijuana or ‘weed’, the psychoactive drug derived from the cannabis plant) burning in an Andhra Pradesh village dominated television screens and went viral on social media.
Plumes of smoke rose to the skies as police set 2 lakh kg (200 metric tonnes) of dry ganja on fire, in a defining move that was part of an ongoing operation to curtail cultivation of the cannabis crop in sprawling ‘hotbeds’ of the southern state.
The main aim of the Andhra Police’s special project ‘Operation Parivarthana’ — which began last October — is to curtail ganja cultivation by destroying crops, setting up awareness programmes for farmers, and cracking down on smugglers and drug peddlers.
The operation is being carried out under the supervision of state Director General of Police (DGP) D. Gautam Sawang and teams of the Special Enforcement Bureau (SEB), a specialised agency created last September to check illegal transportation of liquor and drugs in the state.
The state has a history of ganja cultivation spanning at least four decades, with the crop being grown extensively in interior pockets of Visakhapatnam district, which includes proposed state capital Vizag, and along the Andhra-Odisha border, according to police officials. Lack of proper connectivity makes these areas tricky terrain for law enforcement agencies. As a result, tribals have taken to growing cannabis in these areas due to lucrative and easy returns, and minimum effort required to grow the crop.
A strong Maoist presence in these areas has also proved to be an obstacle for law enforcement agencies. Moreover, the failure of consecutive governments to empower gram sabhas (village committees), enforce development and provide alternative occupations to the tribals has pushed the latter towards cannabis cultivation, say former government officials.
ThePrint sought a comment on the issue from advisor to Andhra Pradesh government Rajiv Khanna via phone and messages, but did not receive a response. This article will be updated if a response is received.
How ganja cultivation started in Andhra
The earliest traces of ganja cultivation in the Visakha ‘agency’ area (named so under the Agency Act passed during the British regime in the Madras presidency) date back to the early 70s. The first case of ganja smuggling was recorded almost 45 years ago in 1973, even before the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act came into force in 1985.
According to SEB Deputy Commissioner Babji Rao, ganja cultivation started in the state after people from Tamil Nadu and Kerala identified interior parts of Andhra and started sowing seeds there.
These people, who were traders, according to government officials, later identified “kingpins” in the villages and used them to convince farmers of particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTG) to get into ganja cultivation. “This did not happen overnight, it looks like years of exercise,” Rao told ThePrint.
“Lucrative and easy returns, minimum effort compared to other crops, economic stability and under development are few of the reasons why tribals got attracted to ganja cultivation. And that is how the area’s traditional crops such as turmeric, ginger etc. were replaced with ganja,” Rao continued.
“Favourable climate and soil conditions also make these areas more viable for such extensive cultivation. Slowly, AP became a supplier to entire India,” he added.
Although ganja cultivation has been on for decades, it became rampant only after 2005, said experts. Authorities began to particularly focus on the issue after drug dealers nabbed in cases in other states indicated that they had procured “stuff” from Andhra Pradesh.
In October last year, Hyderabad Police had seized 300 kg of ganja, and a month before that Delhi Police said they seized another 358 kg consignment. In both cases, the drugs were reportedly procured in Andhra. In similar seizures in Karnataka (Bengaluru), Kerala and Madhya Pradesh, local police hinted at Andhra connections.
Also in October, Telangana police landed in Visakhapatnam’s Chintapalli mandal, to arrest the accused in a ganja smuggling case. The police reportedly also opened fire in self-defence. Two days later, Andhra Police served notices to Telugu Desam Party leader Anand Babu for his remarks on “rampant” ganja cultivation in the state. Ten days after that, Andhra Police launched ‘Operation Parivarthana’.
‘Hotbeds’ where the crop is grown
The kind of ‘weed’ grown in the state is called ‘Sheelavathi’ — which has a nation-wide demand as it is considered one of the best in terms of quality in the country, according to SEB officials.
Ganja cultivation happens on a very large scale in the interiors of ‘agency areas’ of Visakhapatnam district and along the Andhra-Odisha border, and 11 mandals (local units of administration) in the ‘agency’ areas are involved in large-scale cultivation, state police officials told ThePrint.
Nine of these 11 mandals fall in the thickly forested Eastern Ghats. Among them are Gudem Kotha Veedhi, Pedabayalu, Munchingi Puttu, Gangaraju Madugula and Chintapalli, where ganja is grown extensively.
These mandals have now become the ‘Ganja capital’ of the state, with cultivation and smuggling capacity almost close to that of Himachal Pradesh’s Chamba Valley, according to local residents.
Around 23 districts in Odisha are also involved in cultivation, state police officials said, stressing that while Andhra comparatively has lesser cultivation, it being widely used to transport the drug as routes here are more accessible than contiguous routes in Chhattisgarh and Odisha.
Andhra DGP Sawang told mediapersons Saturday that according to police estimates, ganja is being cultivated on 10,000 acres in the state.
‘Worth at least thrice the cost in cities’
The 2 lakh kg of dry ganja stock burnt Saturday in the interiors of Koduru village — located around 30 kilometres from Visakhapatnam — was seized over a period of one year, according to state police officials.
By conservative estimates, it would be worth around Rs 400 crore in the local market, but would fetch at least thrice the amount in metropolitan cities.
“The farther you move, the higher the rate. You cross one highway, the price increases by Rs 5,000. Imagine going to Mumbai, Hyderabad and other cities. Stock worth Rs 1,000 rupees becomes Rs 10,000 by the time it reaches cities,” a senior police official who did not wish to be named told ThePrint.
Strong Maoist presence
A strong Maoist presence in the areas is a major reason that these areas have been difficult to penetrate, police officials told ThePrint. Several villages in the mandals where ganja is cultivated still do not have proper road connectivity.
“No police focus and not much push from the excise department over the years had led ganja cultivation to become an organised crime,” said SEB deputy commissioner Rao, who was with the state excise department up until recently.
“Excise department officials themselves do not have many resources. Even we wanted to go inside these (Maoist controlled) areas. We had to wait for clearance from the police,” he added.
Former IAS officer E.A.S. Sarma said failure of consecutive governments to develop the areas, non-allocation of appropriate rights to gram sabhas under the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, and failure to create a livelihood for the tribals, especially youth, has pushed them to take up ganja cultivation.
“The traders (middlemen) also take advantage of the fact that the state government has not really lived up to expectations in creating livelihood opportunities for tribals in remote areas, especially in the outskirts of Paderu, towards the Odisha border etc. The root cause is that development should be in line with what the tribals want, not development in line with what Amaravati wants, what Delhi wants, what Visakhapatnam wants,” Sarma told ThePrint.
“How did Maoists’ presence increase in the area? Because police never visited the ground and ignored these areas,” he added.
A senior excise department official who did not wish to be named said the modus operandi is that the middlemen (dealers mostly from other states) pay the farmers in advance to cultivate the crop, seeds are distributed, and once the crop is cultivated, the farmer is paid the bare minimum rate, after which the ganja is smuggled outside.
“Without tribals’ involvement, outsiders cannot come in so easily,” the official added.
Although Maoists have several times denied their involvement in encouraging ganja cultivation, the state police believes that the same has become a major source of income for them.
“Police know everything about ganja cultivation but they let it be. There is also a fear that if they are too stringent and crack down on these people, they might revolt and join the Maoist movement. So, they let them be,” Killo Surendra from Adivasi Sangham (an organisation that bats for tribals’ rights) told ThePrint.
What ‘Op Parivarthana’ has achieved so far
In a press statement Saturday, state police said that under ‘Operation Parivarthana’, around 7,552 acres of ganja crop cultivated across 313 villages in 11 mandals, worth an estimated Rs 9,251 crore, have been destroyed so far.
Around 120 checkpoints were set up in the state’s interiors under the operation, 577 cases were lodged and 1,500 arrests have been made since its launch, of which 572 accused were from other states.
DGP Sawang told ThePrint that commercial trading platforms, Bitcoins are also being used for ganja smuggling, adding that state police are investigating the process.
In November, Andhra Police also made arrests in connection with ganja smuggling through e-commerce site Amazon.
As part of their anti-drug operations, police are using drones, satellite technology, space imagery, Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to identify the extent of ganja cultivation.
According to sources in the district police, around Rs 30 lakh is spent every month to keep informers in the ‘agency’ area active for tip-offs on smuggling.
‘Operation Parivarthana’ also focuses on creating awareness, providing alternate livelihood to tribals such as alternate cropping and skill development programmes for the youth.
But the results won’t be instant, said Surendra.
“They (tribals) have been doing this for 25 years. Why will they suddenly shift to alternate cropping with much lower returns? The police has to take up this exercise and keep pushing them. Then we may see some change in four years or so. It is impossible to expect them to move away suddenly,” he added.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)